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GDC: Animal Crossing Case Study

This is an informal transcript for a GDC lecture. The actual title was ‘Is That a Franchise in Your Pocket? An Animal Crossing Wild World Case Study’. Let me start by pointing out that the title was clearly not chosen by the speaker, Katsuya Eguchi, and has the stink of the GDC conference organisers’ logic on what constitutes a good title. That said, this was the only Japanese game designer’s talk I was able to make this year, and I was most grateful to have attended.

How does a game with few if any goals, throwback graphics and absolutely no evidence of ‘gosh wow’ graphical excess go on to achieve both critical and commercial success? Animal Crossing seemed to come from nowhere to challenge The Sims’ position as the only social sim in town. But where did this unique and wondrous game come from?

Katsuya Eguchi is hardly what would be considered a household name. Even game geeks are unlikely to know his name, although he has had a long and quite frankly sterling career at Nintendo, working such titles as Super Mario Bros. 3, Wave Race 64 and Yoshi’s Story. As director on Animal Crossing and Animal Crossing: Wild World, he had a unique insight as to where the franchise came from, and how it ended up on the DS.

Apparently, Animal Crossing was originally conceived as a game for the 64DD, with the idea of taking advantage of that system’s clock functionality. The original concept was built around the idea of a multiplayer game in which players would co-operate to fulfil goals. Obviously, the final game was not goal-oriented, but at the outset this element had not yet emerged.

Rather than pursue a strong central character such as Link or Mario, the idea was to have a “helpless” character who would depend upon help from animals (birds, wolves etc.) to help them solve problems. Since the 64DD was flailing, the project was moved to the N64, which in part explains the style of the graphics.

The team decided at some point that what they wanted to do was create a world that was an impetus for communication. That is, to design a space that was engaging enough that it would naturally drive people to engage with each other by some means. Since the goal of the design was communication, the game did not require an ending. However, it did need a place, a desire, topics, variation and encounters. In terms of giving the player some intrinsic motivation, the team decided that the game would be built around the desire to play every day.

The high level design goals for the project were therefore to deliver fun through two areas:

  • Communication
  • Desire to play daily

We’ll look at each of these in turn.

Communication

Since communication was intended to be core to the experience, it was necessary to consider what would motivate people in this regard. It was assumed that if the game could provide both unique experiences, and shared experiences, that in itself would be the spur for people to talk to one another. “Admit it,” Eguchi-san says, “when something happens to you, you want to tell someone about it.”

What is necessary for the player to have a unique personal experience:

  • Large degree of freedom
  • Variety of choices

But Eguchi-san is quick to point out that freedom can be confusing. If there is so much one can do, how does the player learn about their options? It therefore became necessary to consider how to educate players. Eguchi-san presented this as a simple three step process:

1.    Illustrate possibilities
2.    Educate [I am not certain what was meant in this regard; I assume via conversations with NPCs et al.]
3.    Expand choices

Although it was not stated, this mechanism values player freedom first. The player is presented with the situation first, and they can explore it at their leisure. Education only comes later. If the player has already discovered how things work, they will not need to learn anything when they are being spoken to; it will merely recap. Then, new choices can be added until the choices available become extremely diverse.

In order for the experience to be unique, the team devised the town system that begins with a randomly generated map, but is then gradually customised by the player. The number of customisations are vast, but the player encounters them only gradually, and thus escapes being overwhelmed by the magnitude of their choices. This ultimately means that each town is genuinally unique – “there is no other place like this!” Variety combines with the player’s imagination to give complete satisfaction, and satisfaction creates something that players want to share: I have to tell somebody. I want to show somebody.

This creates a motivation chain that drives the interest in the game:

    Desire        →        Satisfaction
        ↑                                    ↓
    Stimulus    ←        Sharing

In terms of shared experiences, Eguchi-san notes that there are certain elements that are common to all towns in Animal Crossing; there are common elements through the working of the game clock, which provides festivals and seasonal changes, and through common places (since certain elements in the town are the same across all instances). But different players each have unique reactions to these common elements, which gives a reason to communicate. An example is stated in the case of Totokeke’s Saturday night performances, which some players seem to really enjoy talking about. Shared experiences provide fuel for lively conversations.

Motivation to Play Daily

One key design problem that needed to be solved was how to make people want to play every day, even though the game is not based around goals. Eguchi-san notes: “Players want a feeling of satisfaction, but if we give it to them, then we’re done.” This leads to the idea of intentionally deferring satisfaction in order to maintain interest [c.f. my comments last month about how complex cRPGs defer the ‘win’ state in order to create greater involvement in the process].

The idea employed in Animal Crossing is that satisfaction can come from overcoming inconvenience. For example, the shop only sells a few items, which is inconvenient, but provides a spur for the player to come back every day to get new items. Similarly, the changing of the seasons implies a certain inconvenience because certain things only apply for a limited window of opportunity.

But this would never work if the player’s activities were mandatory. But critically nothing is required. The player is quite literally free to pursue a variety of routines, a variety of hobbies, and the changes and simple joys of everyday play distract from the inconveniences. “Players do what they want, when they want, and grab themselves a little bit of happiness.”

Redesigning for a Handheld System

Working with the DS provided whole new opportunities thanks to the platform’s many special features:

1.    Dual screen
2.    Touch screen
3.    Mic
4.    Clock
5.    Wireless connectivity

Eguchi-san is keen to point out that the wireless connectivity was the single most important motivation behind bringing the game to the DS.

However, the handheld system is also less powerful than its home console big sister. It was therefore necessary to look at the game composition carefully and determine what were the most important elements, and also, what would have to be cut. This was no easy decision!
The cuts were in three specific areas, and chosen in order to change the scale of the content, but leave the underlying play mechanics intact:

  • Cut the size of the play area: this wasn’t too problematic, since the original towns in Animal Crossing were, in some respects, too large. The player spent some time walking from one side to the other. A smaller town could maintain all of the key elements of play, and even be a little easier for the player to navigate. [When one considers how small the original Animal Crossing towns were, relative to what is usually assumed is needed for a game world, I believe there is an important lesson to be learned.]
  • Cut the size of the player’s living areas: in the GameCube version, the game supported 4 players each with 3 rooms for a total of 12 living spaces. For the DS, it was decided [quite sensibly] that cutting the other players made more sense than reducing the number of rooms. So the number of rooms was actually increase to 5, but the number of houses decreased to just one. This meant only 5 living spaces were needed instead of 12.
  • Cut the number of animals per town: the GameCube version has 250 animals, or which up to 15 can be in the town at any given time. The DS version has 150 animals, or which up to 8 can be in the town at any given time. This is a reduction in scale, but not one that the player will especially notice.

Naturally, some elements were unchanged, and some new things were added. When adapting to a handheld, software goals need to be considered in conjunction with hardware functionality. It is vital to determine what is important, and to give amble consideration to player convenience.

Wireless Functionality

Since the origin of all things Animal Crossing is the communication process, the wireless functionality was an extremely exciting prospect. For the GameCube version, it was only possible to have “wait and see” communications (for instance, by exchanging letters). But on the DS, there was the potential for more immediate communications (“idle chit chat”).

Nintendo’s global wi fi philosophy is built upon three core tenets:

  • Easy
  • Worry free
  • Free of charge

The tenet of ‘worry free’ dictated that a certain degree of caution was required. It was vitally important that the game provided a safe and relaxing experience. By opening up one’s town to complete strangers, the player is accepting guests into a place which the player is emotionally invested in. There needed to be a means to block “griefers” [Eguchi-san did not use this term, but it was implied] for example, guests coming to town and cutting down all the player’s trees, trampling flowers and generally making a nuisance of themselves.

The solution chosen was to use friend codes to mediate access to a player’s world. Nintendo had always made it clear that friend codes were designed for use with distant friends, and this took upon a special meaning for the DS version. It allowed distant friends to come and visit, without any risk of unwelcome guests.

Of course, for some people [i.e. extroverts] the thrill of meeting new people outweighs the fear of people ransacking their town – and so it is that some people publish their codes openly on the web, inviting all and sundry to stop by. The desire to enjoy communicating and the desire to play without worry is the same throughout the world, making Animal Crossing: Wild World a truly global play experience.

Conclusion

Eguchi-san concludes his talk by saying that “it was the game’s destiny to arrive on this platform.” He suggests other designers choose a platform that best suits their software’s goals, and to focus on the features of the platform that will have the greatest positive impact.

The DS version of Animal Crossing has shipped 2,480,000 copies to date – considerably more than the GameCube version – and its community continues to grow, day by day. It is a glowing testament to how focussing on new and original play goals can serve to deliver a game that reaches out to players in a wholly new and engaging manner.

My eternal thanks to the translator for an extremely confident rendering of the presentation (my Japanese is far from strong enough to translate in real time and I am in awe of anyone who can!) Arigato gozaimasu!


GDC: Census

More GDC capsule summaries in the works... I wrote two in Dallas airport today, but I can't get them off the laptop yet. I think there's three more to come in all. In the meantime, here are the results of my (informal) handheld console census at GDC:

Wednesday:
Nintendo DS - 7, Sony PSP - 1
Thursday:
Nintendo DS - 5, Sony PSP - 1, (Nintendo GBA SP - 1)
Friday:
Nintendo DS - 5, Sony PSP - Nil

Aggregate:
Nintendo DS - 17, Sony PSP - 2

It seems that among game developers, the Nintendo DS is the Empress of Portable Play.


GDC: When Keynotes Attack

Sadly, I was unable to make it into the Satoru Iwata keynote. My previous session ran late, and by the time I got outside there was a queue that ran around three sides of the not inconsiderably large building. My overwhelming feeling was that even if I had joined the back of the line, I wouldn't have made it into the building - and there was certainly a good one hundred people left stranded at the end.

So, no free copy of Brain Age (the US release name for Brain Training) for me. Alice has a good summary of the keynote though.

After that was Wil Wright's keynote. As ever, I didn't go. No offense to Mr. Wright; if he ever decides to give up the immense resources of EA and pursue a more independent agenda, I will be thrilled to hear his talks which, by all accounts, are somewhat magical. You can read about it from Alice, of course. Unfortunately, EA is still the lowest investor in original IP of all publishers, despite being the largest publisher by turnover - although there are signs this might be changing. I will be more inclined to believe when I see evidence, however.

I also suspect Wil and I may be in opposite positions in regards to the philosophy of capitalism. I believe it is more amazing when a handful of people gather together and co-operate to make enough money to live on than when a company with 6,100 employees earns billions of dollars. I am not against large corporations - I have already noted that some things can only be achieved that way. But they have a tendency to lack egalitarian values that I cherish.

I don't know. Maybe my boycott seems petty. But I am wary of large crowds gathering to hear people speak. When I see people rallying together for anything other than humanitarian causes, my natural tendency is to take the counterpoint. Perhaps this dooms me to irrelevancy, but I think perhaps I am more comfortable being a tiny flame in the wilderness, than to be absorbed into an ocean of anonymity.


GDC: Write Club

This is a capsule summary for an unusual GDC roundtable session. The actual title of the event was ‘The IGDA Game Writers’ SIG Presents: Write Club’. It was hosted by Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin.

Holding a writing contest at 9 am on the morning after the first big party night of GDC is a bit of a gamble. Writers do not particularly enjoy getting up in the morning, and alcohol seldom improves this situation. However, after an initial crowd of shadows, the room gradually filled out with a dozen and a half of bright eyed hopefuls.

The challenge? To compete head to head with a crowd of hopeful writers to see who is the champion writer, to see who can out prose the pros, and just whose pen was mightier than whose sword. 

Ed Kuehnel and Matt Entin (whose drawling slacker voice seems to have been perfectly made to say the word ‘dude’, even though he never does) were the hosts of this delightfully whimsical event, which had already been held once the previous day to much success.

1st Challenge: Write a voice call for the description of a plant. That is, a first person voice over describing a plant (in a charming and witty style, Matt adds) in the classic adventure game style [5 minutes]

The prevailing tone of the voice calls in this round of the challenge was fantastical horror, although there was also the odd wryly comic reality check shuffled into the mix – and even a Freudian cactus tale. Many of the descriptions were unbelievably long – far too long for use in a real game – although it was apparent the writers were having fun with their task, which filled the renditions with a light hearted air.  

I could not help but conclude from this first round that most male writers are mortally afraid of plants, to a degree even HP Lovecraft would find inconceivable, while most female writers wrestle with their hidden anxiety that every plant they have ever owned has died from neglect.

2nd Challenge: You are working on a next generation platform game; the player character is Ocho, a totally radical octopus. Come up with a name and a concept for power ups for Ocho’s superspeed, superjump and invincibility [5 minutes] 

This round produced a balance of anti-octopus sadism and equally painful puns. The tone varied between playing on the oceanic theme, a Spongebob-esque pop culture transposition to the ocean bed, and horrific Spanglish crimes against language. It struck me that writers have a very strange idea of cephalopod biology and life cycle. More than a few of the entries chose to interpret the brief not, as might be assumed, as a kid’s game, but rather as a full-on undersea adult explosion of sex, drugs and wasabi.

3rd Challenge: Write some barks (short exclamations) for an eccentric Texas oil tycoon to scream out as he is hit with spare ribs [5 minutes]

It is perhaps inevitable that several writers felt it was irresistible to relate said tycoon to a certain US President, usually by reference to a certain Mr. Cheney. My favourite line presupposed the player’s deadly rib attack decapitated said tycoon, to which he replies: “Here in Texas we like to call that a light scratch.”

4th Challenge: Write a fictional interview with one of the enemy characters from the classic video game Burger Time, Mr. Egg (a fried egg on legs). Answer the following questions as Mr. Egg: “Why do you hate chefs, specifically Peter Pepper?” [3 minutes] 

Ah, Burger Time – what a classic game. Mr. Egg was always a personal favourite of mine, as there is something strangely satisfying about crushing an ambulatory egg under a giant hamburger – although one does suspect that the customers might complain if they found egg legs in their double cheese.

This was by far the funniest of the rounds, and produced spontaneous rounds of applause for some hilariously ridiculous accounts, and some truly toe-curling puns. Revenge themes dominated, naturally, although one particularly memorable account hinged around post-traumatic stress, and I was also taken with the idea that Mr. Egg’s frustration was borne of the denial of his destiny to be fried chicken.

And the winner is… 

Mike Viner 

Runners up: 

Jennifer F. Estaris , Lance Peterson, Shanming Loh, Aljernon Bolden

Winners Transcript 

Here is what Mike wrote for each stage of the competition, as best as I can read from his largely illegible scrawl. 

1st Challenge: Plant Description 

“The plant is clearly harmless. It’s four mouths and extruded row of teeth which resemble razor wire were no match for my double knit sweater. The green bile which pours from its bloodied claws are clearly intended to attract mates from its species. I wonder what it smells like? Only one way to find out.”

2nd Challenge: Ocho’s Power-ups 

Completely illegible, I’m afraid!

3rd Challenge: Rib Barks 

“What? You can’t take a ribbin’?”
“You suck, Texas-style.”
“You couldn’t hit the broad side of a refinery!”
“Chaney’s a better shot than you!” 

4th Challenge: Mr. Egg Interview

Q. Why do you hate chefs, specifically Peter Pepper?

A. Peter Pepper! Don’t get me started! He’s a no good poacher, that’s what he is! I was married once… Meg and I spent two years on the sunny side when we came across… Peter. She begged for mercy – begged! Peter Pepper scrambled my Meg. You want to know why I hate them… hate them all? They have yolk on their hands. Oh God… Meg! *sobbing*


GDC: Building a Better Battlestar

This is an informal transcript for a GDC keynote session. This is really a chance for me to indulge some rampant and highly irregular fanboyishness, since Ron Moore is my favourite TV screenwriter, and I have followed his career from his early work on Star Trek: The Next Generation, through his tenure on Deep Space Nine and onwards. There are spoilers in the following account of his keynote address, but only if you have not already seen the mini-series.

What do you do after you’ve been a part of the rejuvenation of one of the most successful sci fi franchises of all time? In the case of Ronald D. Moore, you go on to rejuvenate another classic sci fi franchise – and earn even more critical acclaim in the process.

As Ron Moore comes out onto the stage, he displays the casual nonchalance of an experienced professional speaker, kicking off with a joke or two and a confession of his general uncertainty as to why, exactly, he was being asked to speak at the Game Developer’s Conference. He goes on to answer his own question, and observes that the issues relating to franchise development (and redevelopment) are extremely pertinent to the games industry. From hereon in, his presentation proceeds with consummate presence and confidence.

[As a multimedia challenged blogger, lacking in the skills and equipment to capture audio visual content, I can’t share with you any of the video sequences which peppered this keynote. It began with the original credit sequence from the original 1978 television show, interspersed with footage from the new show, often with hilarious results. The entire presentation was interspersed with these comparison sequences, which served not only to break up the speaking, but also to demonstrate just how lovingly this resurrection of the classic show has been carried out.]

Ron explains at the outset, that the core of the process of updating the show was identifying the fundamentals that made the original such a classic. Step by step, Ron reveals the process by which he took a marvelous, albeit cheesy, space opera classic, and remade it as a modern drama.

What follows is a summary of the elements Ron identified as core to the original show, and how these were updated for the new format.

The Cylon Attack on the Colonies

One of the core elements of the original show was the inherent darkness of the concept. The show was predicated upon the idea of a peaceful society all but eliminated by a vicious and unrelenting attack which all but exterminates that society. This is nothing short of genocide, and rarely considered a suitable topic for a television show!

It was a given that this element would not change, but there were still questions. What ‘key’ do you play it in? Ron decided not to play the attacks for spectacle – this seemed inappropriate; “genocide shouldn’t be that fun”. This lead to a particular conclusion which was to inform the entire adaptation process: everything should have realism at its base. It’s not that the show wouldn’t strive to be entertaining, but it should be situated upon a foundation of fundamental realism.

Ron notes that he was originally approached to pursue the update to the show shortly after the terrorist attacks of September 2001. This undoubtedly influenced the desire to underpin the show with a realistic element, as well as allowing (as outstanding sci fi is empowered to do) for commentary on contemporary issues in a context sufficiently far removed from the real world to escape excess criticism or political insensitivity.

The Family Adama

Both the original show, and the new show, have at their centre the family Adama. In many respects, the family Adama is the subject of the show. In the original, there were four members – the Commander himself, Apollo, Athena and Zack – who dies in the pilot movie. Ron felt that it wasn’t very credible that Adama’s family would all be serving on the same ship. He considered the options for addressing this, including the possibility of making it a cultural element – that in this world, commanding officers generally serve with their entire family.

Eventually, he decided to pursue a more realistic approach, in keeping with the overall goal to build the new format on a bedrock of realism. Firstly, Apollo’s stationing was altered so that initially he is not serving on his father’s ship. The fact that they end up together then becomes a natural consequence of the surviving military forces being condensed into a single vessel. Furthermore, whereas Richard Hatch’s Apollo was a loyal and dutiful son in all ways, Jamie Bamber’s Apollo has father issues, which present a realistic tension between the two characters.

The character of Athena, Ron felt, served no purpose in the original series, except as a love interest for Dirk Benedict’s Starbuck. With the new series having a female Starbuck, Ron decided that the daughter relationship could be preserved without the need for the Athena character. “Adama’s daughter is effectively Starbuck,” Ron explains.

The details of Zack were kept largely the same, but rather than killing him in the pilot episode (as in the 1978 series), he was instead killed in the backstory. This served much the same purpose in narrative terms, but saved screen time for more important developments.

Adama, Ron notes, is key because he is the father figure – both figuratively and literally. Lorne Greene's Adama was a true believer in every manner; Edward James Olmos' Adama needed to be toned down for a more realistic take. The element of being a true believer was kept in the sense of his firm faith in democracy, but this was tempered by the reality of being the commander of a battleship in a time of war. The new Adama was to be fallible and human, making him easier to relate to for the audience.

Providing Balance: Roslin

In the original show, there is no figure to balance Adama. Ron felt it was necessary for their to be a counterweight, and this came to be Laura Roslin, the President of the Colonies, played by Mary McDonnell. Ron contends this character is vitally important to the new show for three reasons: firstly, she provides balance in the sense of being the civil authority to Adama’s military authority. She is also the mother figure to balance Adama’s father figure. And she is also emblematic of the apocalypse – a constant reminder of the attack which destroyed mankind. Although Ron fell short of linking her cancer to the fragility of the fleets continual existence, one assumes this is also part of the metaphorical role of the character of Roslin.

The Quorum of Twelve

This was imported from the original show, but as Ron observes, in the original show the quorum were “straw men” whose sole purpose was to suggest absurdly ridiculous courses of action which Adama could then shoot down. Ron wanted to lend weight to the quorum of twelve, and to use them as a means of expressing the preservation of the ideals of a free society. This was, naturally, in keeping of the tendency towards greater realism in the new show.  (The issue of casting Richard Hatch - the original Apollo - as one of the members of the Quorum of Twelve does not come up).

Starbuck as a Woman

The decision to change the character of Starbuck to being female “generated a fair amount of, shall we say… comment”. Ron is keen to note that Starbuck is a “load-bearing” member of the cast. The decision to cast her as a woman (convincingly played by Katee Sackhoff) was, however, somewhat random. Ron notes, in passing, that he wasn’t even sure if he wanted to get back into the space opera game at this point, and so a certain whimsy guided his hand in laying out the new framework.  

He notes that the logline for this character is cliché of the highest order – the hotshot pilot, gambler and sexually promiscuous rogue is something all too familiar. Ron notes that the original character works solely because of Dirk Benedict, who makes the role his own. But in making the character realistic, there are consequences. Applying the same role with a realistic bent, and in the context of a female character, implied that this person would naturally be somewhat disturbed. She’s still a hotshot pilot, and thrilling to watch in action, but underneath is a fundamentally screwed up person.

Colonel Tigh 

Tigh, played originally by Terry Carter and now by Michael Hogan, is another part of the ‘family’. In the backstory of the original series, Tigh and Adama had served together as pilots, and this was kept for the new show. To get something different out of the character, Ron wanted to make him different from the usual TV executive officer (XO) archetype. “I wanted to make him different to Commander Riker” he says, although he’s quick to point out that Jonathan Frakes is a good friend, and he doesn’t want to disrespect his performance on Star Trek: The Next Generation. However, Riker’s role on that show generally devolved into being a yes man for Captain Picard, and occasionally saying ‘Red Alert’.

Ron notes at this point that he actually had a brief spell in the Naval ROTC – and spent some time on a frigate in the Atlantic. He observes that nobody likes the XO. He or she is the barking dog who comes down hard on everyone. Giving Tigh, as XO of the Galactica, a drinking problem deepened the character, and also gave a new element to Adama. Tigh is Adama’s blind spot; he feels he must protect him, but his flaws present constant problems.

Boomer 

This character was originally a “third banana” in the original show, lacking any real narrative purpose. In the new show, Ron wanted there to be a second family, to balance the omnipresence of Adama’s family at the centre of the story. Originally, this would have been Boomer, Chief Tyrol and Boxy. (Ron never comments on how and why Boxy was cut, although there are certain logical reasons why this had to be so).

At some point, Ron’s colleague (and co-Executive Producer on the new show) David Eick suggested that there was one sure way to make sure the pilot got picked up by the networks: make Boomer a cylon. This immediately clicked, and works perfectly because Grace Park plays the character in such a human manner throughout, so the resulting reversal where she is revealed at the end of the pilot to be a cylon has correspondingly greater intensity. 

Cylons

Obviously, there had to be cylons. The only question was, what to do with them? There were several options, mostly dictated by the budget of the show. Firstly, a fancy suit could be developed. Alternatively, an animatronic appliance could be built – but probably only a single unit. CGI was originally considered to be something that couldn’t be afforded (only once the show was rolling did it become apparent that this was indeed a viable option). This lead to an entirely new concept – make the cylons look human. This was driven by financial decisions (obviously, showing a human is much cheaper than showing a robot!) but the idea had such merit that it drove the construction of the new show. 

Ron observes that if money hadn’t been an object, they probably would have just stuck with superpowered robots throughout, although he glibly notes than in the original show the cylons are so incompetent as to “make stormtroopers look like special forces”. As it happened, the new idea of human-like cylons really adds significantly to the feel of the new show.

The Betrayer 

Along with the cylons comes the notion of a betrayer. There had to be a Baltar, the only question was: why did he do it? Ron was drawn to this central issue of motivation. However, he was also keen to ensure that the new Baltar (an impressive performance by James Callis) would be located with the fleet, and not rapidly written out of relevance as happened with John Colicos’ Baltar in the original series. (Although it was not mentioned, Ron worked with John Colicos on Deep Space Nine, as he reprised his role as the Klingon Kor from the original Star Trek show; he was keen to express his admiration for John, however).

Baltar, in Ron’s eyes, is emblematic of the problems originating within the society. He is, therefore, a metaphor for what has lead humanity to its tragic circumstances. Ron reveals he has a certain fascination with famous traitors (he corrects himself from saying “Great Traitors”, by making a joke from it: “Great Traitors of History!”), and indeed was at one point working on a script based around Benedict Arnold. He observes that most traitors instigate their betrayal for one of two reasons: money or women. Since money couldn’t be a possibility in this case, that left one obvious choice. 

There is something appealing, Ron suggests, about a man so afflicted by hubris that he leaves himself vulnerable to a flattering woman – or in the case of the new show, a flattering cylon. He is a victim of his own pride and arrogance, taken in by a woman who plays to his weaknesses. Yes, you are a great and clever man. And oh, by the way, you’ve just destroyed mankind.

I was surprised to hear Ron speak explicitly at this point about the visions Baltar experiences of Tricia Helfer's cylon ‘Number six’. He notes the ambiguity – is this a chip (or some other technological mcguffin) or is it a psychotic break? The allusions to God in these visions seems to further tie into the idea of this being a mental breakdown, brought upon by inability to relate to the guilt of what he has done. The cause of my surprise was that I felt this all but canonically stated that the visions are a consequence of psychosis, although since Ron is keen to underline the ambiguity, I feel it is safe to say that even the writing team on the show has not fully decided what the underlying cause will transpire to be, if indeed it is ever firmly resolved. 

Vipers

Ron calls these “the darlings of the original series”, and stresses that he didn’t want to make changes. However, one thing he was keen to avoid was immersion breaking cinematography. He notes that he was working on a Dragonriders of Pern show for “the WB” (which presumably never happened) and was faced with the problem of how to show these unreal objects. When special effects shots show camera angles which are too clean, or which clearly could not have happened, it presents a break with immersion. He cites an example from Apollo 13 (a film he has fondness for) in which the launching Saturn V is shown from a position that would clearly vapourise any camera thus positioned. 

This lead to the idea of the “hand camera in space” which characterises all of the space action shots from the new show. The philosophy of the VFX (visual effects) for the new show is that there is always a camera person somewhere; it is never a disembodied shot. This violates the film school assumption that the audience should not be aware of the camera, but in the context of Battlestar Galactica it works to underline the reality of the experience. (Doubtless, the rise of reality TV has significantly rewritten the underlying rules of film making. In this regard, Ron is perhaps ahead of the curve)

Interiors 

The new sets were based very much upon the original sets, but reworked with the inevitable new focus on realism. The guiding philosophy was to make it feel as if these were places that people really lived and worked. He notes that one of the most ridiculous elements of many sci fi shows is that the bridge area has a huge glass window in it – a serious vulnerability in battle. Rather, the centre of ship operations (the Combat Information Centre or CIC for the Battlestars) should be at a safe, central position. Information can be piped to this location – it need not and should not be at the edge of the ship.

Another thing that used to drive Ron mad was when people living in space have pictures of space on their walls. They live on spaceships and have pictures of space in their personal areas even though space is just outside. This is the reason why Adama’s quarters in the new show has absolutely nothing related to space in it. 

Mythology

The notion of Kobol (the birthplace of humanity) and the thirteenth tribe was carried over to the new show. However, whereas the original was steeped in Mayan and Egyptian design elements, Ron felt this was too distinctly 1970’s (being reminiscent of ‘Chariots of the Gods’ – undoubtedly a cultural influence that affected Glen A. Larson in conceiving the original show). Instead, he pushed for a more Graeco-Roman influence. 

Universe

The old show had a populous feel, with many different races. But this, Ron observes, has become a very tired approach to sci fi. The original series had “planet of the week” shows, and hokey alien races. Ron discarded this because, as much as anything, he’d worked ten years on Star Trek and had seen enough bumpy headed aliens. (He does note that the make up people on Star Trek did a sterling job; it’s just there are only so many places one can position latex on a person’s face).

The new universe, therefore, is barren and largely empty of life.

Ron was keen to make the new show be a drama set in a science fiction setting, not a science fiction drama. This forces the show to be internally driven, which was one of his fundamental goals for the show.

The Search for Earth 

With the possible exception of the fact that the Battlestar Galactica is an aircraft carrier in space, there is nothing more fundamental to the concept of the show than the search for Earth. It is core to the show’s concept. To improve the audience's ability to accept this element, which risked the audience rolling their eyes in disbelief when it was eventually brought up, Ron elected to make it a lie on Adama’s part. He tells the fleet about Earth as a means to an end – to give a reason to hope. He does not believe it exists. This neatly places the audience in an unusual position, as they think to themselves of Adama’s fabrication: “You’re so lucky it’s true!”

Conclusion

Summing up, Ron is keen to note that he didn’t want to destroy the show to remake it. He wanted to see what made the original show a classic (and he stresses that it is a classic) and then rebuilt that on a modern basis. The job of an adaptor is to allow a new audience to enjoy the original material in a new context. He hopes that in remaking Battlestar Galactica he has achieved that goal.

 

Q&A

There wasn’t much time for questions, but here is what was asked, and an encapsulation of the response: 

Q. Why do the cylons have one god and the humans many?
A. This originated in an off-hand line in the original script, but it has allowed for the show to explore the idea of the one god forcing out the many gods, as happened in Western history with monotheism unseating polytheism.  

Q. What are your thoughts on episodic content? I’m sure you’d love to know you’dre going to have 22 episodes for 7 seasons, but in reality you don’t know if you’re going to have another season in advance. How does this affect how you make a show?
A. “22 episodes and 7 seasons? It makes me tired just thinking about it!” [Although disguised as humour, there is a definite sense that he is serious about this]. I actually don’t like episodic content, I prefer serialisation. I like to be able to develop a larger plotline, but that’s tough in TV as it places a burden on the viewer to keep watching regular and follow what’s going on. The challenge of the show was going to make episodic and serialised content to work together. With that in mind, I took inspiration from the show Hill Street Blues. Each week, it had an A story, which was unique to that show, a B story which ran over a handful of shows, and also a C story which ran over the entire season. I borrowed this format for the new Battlestar Galactica show. 

Q. The Centurians in the original show were quite vocal – although admittedly they only said ‘by your command’ most of the time. Are there any plans for the new Centurians to speak?
A. No, my initial thought was that they wouldn’t speak, and that pretty much still stands. In fact, in the third season, one of the themes we’re going to explore is the idea that cylon society has social issues – that the human-like cylons intentionally keep the Centurians at a low level of sophistication so that they can continue to exploit them as a subjugated ‘slave’ race.

Q. Finding Earth became a dead end in the original series. What are you planning to do to prevent that becoming a problem in the new show?
A. I have an idea of how they might eventually find Earth, and it won’t be a case of ‘they find Earth, the end’, because it’s going to take some time to play out the story of finding Earth. But the show should only run as long as it is viable. I hope we will be able to spot when is the right time to tie it up.


GDC: Game Design Considerations for Alternative Controllers

Guitar_heroCapsule summary of a talk by Greg LoPiccolo and Ryan Lesser (Harmonix Music Systems) at GDC 2006.

How does one begin to design for an alternative controller? Is it worthwhile? What makes a game concept require a custom controller, or is it rather that a custom controller demands new gameplay concepts? These issues were at the heart of this GDC presentation.

My interest with this talk was not Guitar Hero, which I have not played and am unlikely to owing to my general psychological discomfort with rhythm action games, but rather a chance to explore the design process when facing a new controller. With the Revolution just lurking around the corner, I was keen to hear from people who had faced this issue before.

Much of this talk was looking at the details of specific projects, but it was all framed in a generalised framework which I hope to capture here. Firstly, the issue of why one would want to design for a alternative controller was broached. Given that some designers (including International Hobo's own Ernest Adams) have spoken out at custom controllers as gimmicks, it is worth addressing this issue from the outset. Of course, as a huge admirer of just how much Sega Bass Fishing benefited from its custom controller, I was an easy convert in this regard.

In answer to 'why', Greg had this to say:

  • It's an under-appreciated area of game design [which is why I attended this talk in the first place!]
  • Alternative controllers provide access to new game experiences
  • The controller has huge impact on the mechanics of player abilities and constraints, and player role expectations
  • Unique controllers can provide lower barrier to entry - hence provide more potential players
  • Conventional controllers can be intimidating to players with limited prior experience of games
  • Physical interaction contributes to an immersive experience

This issue of player role expectations was stressed in particular, and justifiably so. In fact, the framework of game design presented focused on a simple two step process which hinges around this issue:

Step 1: Identify the desired player experience

Step 2: Evaluate and/or develop the controller

(Greg and Ryan were also keen to point out that early prototyping and iterative refinement was crucial, and that a process of Build --> Test --> Revise --> Repeat was core to the process, but also would constitute the subject of a different talk).

These two steps were examined in more detail.

Step 1: Identify Player Experience

Alternative controllers imply fundamental shifts in player experience. Think about the experience not the mechanics. [Transcribers note: think Mimicry before Agon]. Clear understanding of experiential goals helps to evaluate ideas effectively.

Three examples were provided from the speakers' own experience:

  • The player experience of Karaoke Revolution was identified as singing (drunk), performing in front of an audience (drunk) and singing with other people (drunk).
  • The player experience of Antigrav was identified as being a tougher issue. In fact, it was necessary to look ahead to the unique nature of the EyeToy and identify the data it could gather before choosing a player experience. However, once this was done the idea of mapping limbs and body motion to character control to create an immersive and intuitive control unmediated by a handheld controller was identified as the core experience. This was (eventually) wed to a specific paradigm, namely hoverboarding.
  • The player experience of Guitar Hero was expressly not to be that of a guitar simulator, but rather to be a game about being a rock and roll guitar player. To this end, the experience hinged around (a) reproducing guitar parts of songs (b) on stage showmanship (c) firing up the "crowd" (d) soloing/self expression.

Step 2: Evaluate and Develop Controller

The controller needs to support a play experience unachievable with a conventional controller. Alternative controllers provide unique data: what opportunities does this data provide.

In terms of the three examples:

  • For Karaoke Revolution, options for input included pitch, volume and phonemes. However, pitch detection transpired to be the most useful element. It was intuitive, technically feasible and consistent between players. Conversely, there was considerable difference in volume between players, and phoneme detection (checking the accuracy of the lyrics) was not only technically unfeasible on the computational power of the PS2, but wholly inappropriate - the player should be free to ad lib, not forced to accurately reproduce the lyrics. In all three cases, all that was required was a mike of some kind; earlier attempts at a headset mike proved less satisfactory because they were too high tech. A classic "lollipop" mike made more sense - people knew instantly what to do with such a device, and thus it worked into the fantasy of the play.
  • For Antigrav, it was discovered that the head was one of the easier elements to track, followed by the hands. A breakthrough was the realisation that since the head is firmly attached to the body, tracking the head allowed the body to be tracked. So instead of players having to (counter-intuitively) control the on-screen figure with their head, they could instead think about controlling the avatar with their body. Much more logical, intuitive and accessible. Some additional functionality was added with hand gestures. [I asked about the armbands that were seen at E3 the year prior to this game's release. Apparently, it transpired that colour detection was even harder than edge detection, and subject to the same issues with lighting etc. Thus, there was no benefit to manufacturing these, as they would add to the cost while providing no benefit.]
  • For Guitar Hero, there were many factors to be addressed. The guitar had to look cool and not like a cheap toy, and it had to be inviting both to young PS2 players and to old jaded rockers. Also, it had to be big enough to feel like a real guitar, but small enough to be stockable at retail. It seems a continuous process between the developer and the publisher, Red Octane, lead to the development of the eventual guitar - the Guitar Hero Gibson SG. Data was kept simple, using a set of five fret buttons, a strum bar and a whammy bar to allow for some player expression. A tilt sensor was also included to allow for showboating antics. [Transcribers note: I was supposed to be meeting with Charles Huang from Red Octane later in the day, so I was encouraged to hear they were very co-operative to work with.]

Conclusion

The talk concluded by stating that alternative controllers imply a fundamental shift in player experience which should be embraced. The speakers also added, almost in passing, that Nintendo were "drinking the same koolade we are" (Greg). Enthusiasm was expressed for the new options now available to games through alternative controllers such as dance mats, EyeToy and the Revolution, although they were quick to point out they weren't actually developing for Nintendo. At least, not yet.

Footnote: Handheld Watch - Day One

I saw someone playing on a PSP today! My first ever real life spotting of this handheld console. The scorecard for the day:

    Nintendo DS - 7, Sony PSP - 1


Pre-empting Iwata-san

Tomorrow is the Nintendo keynote, in which Satoru Iwata is announcing everything about the Revolution. It strikes me that the Revolution is, at its heart, the new controller, especially in the light of Miyamoto-san's comments regarding being able to play Twilight Princess on the Revolution (because it runs GameCube software). The Revolution box will doubtless come with some new hardware - internet connectivity, wireless connectors for the controllers and so forth - but it needn't be much more powerful than the GameCube which is, from Nintendo's perspective at least, already satisfactory.

I suspect, however, that they will need to announce some material improvements to graphical performance etc. in order to satisfy the grumbling Hardcore, who are not yet interested in the new controller because (a) it seems to be a tool to target a different audience and they feel left out and (b) they haven't used it yet, and so don't appreciate what a difference a radically more sensitive interface device can have to the input feedback process. (I'm extrapolating here: I haven't used it yet, but I do know the difference between a direct feedback input device and an indirect device like our current controllers).

Of course, no matter how good the new controller may or may not be, the game developers can still manage to screw it up, as they did on the GameCube by not using the Z control sensibly. For the record, I contend the Z button is a great control for a function you don't need often and don't want to hit by accident (such as Map). The GameCube controller remains my favourite, despite it's tiny D-pad and annoyingly short connection cord. Thankfully, we don't have to worry about cords being too short ever again as all the new consoles are wireless!

More soon!

Footnote: Today I have all my Fireball meetings, so I don't get to attend many sessions, except my own which is after the IGDA VIP lunch. I have rented a laptop capable of running Fireball, since mine isn't quite up to scratch, but I can't get the wireless internet to work on it, so I don't know if I'll be able to blog today before the evening.


I Spy...

While traveling, I'm always interested in seeing which handhelds people are playing on. Today I spotted four DS's, two GBA SPs and zero PSPs. In fact, I have never seen a person playing on a PSP anywhere in the world. I'm willing to believe it does happen, though.

Anyway, I have arrived in San Jose, and just finished sorting out my email, setting up the laptop for tomorrow's presentations and so forth. My body has no idea what is going on any more. I hope I can somehow get a good night's sleep despite my general discombobulation.


Departure

I leave for GDC on Monday; I suspect that there will be a total disruption of blogging while I'm away. I have no idea how much internet access I will have, nor whether I will have the time to blog. I'm also remaining in the US for the better part of a month, so it's anyone's guess how much blogging I will do over the next four weeks.

Before I leave, a few scattershot comments.

Fireball

The field design for Fireball has been concluded for the time being, with 201 fields being built. Some are puzzling, some are entertaining, some are amusing, some are beautiful and some are monumentally challenging. I want to thank everyone who contributed to this process - you've helped make the game what it is today. The project is far from over, however. We may complete the PC game in the next month or so, but it won't be out on PS2 before the Autumn. I'm thinking we might call the PC version Hidama, but we'll have to see.  The game has a really unique identity, which I hope will go down well in a market somewhat starved for new ideas, although I doubt it'll get a lot of marketing (any marketing?), so we are totally reliant on word of mouth and the kindness of strangers.

Air Conflicts

This arcade flight combat game is almost finished now. I'm so busy at the moment, that I haven't had time to play it at all, which is frustrating, because the desk across from mine is full of the sounds of Messershmitts and Lancasters and it really looks like great fun. The fail-continue structure of this game seems to work perfectly - players with less skill or desire for adversity can make it through the campaigns, albiet at a low rank; experts or fiero seekers have the added challenge that they only get one chance at each mission. It actually enhances the sense of achievement when you beat a tough assignment - and the despair when you get shot down on the brink of victory.

Game Writing: Narrative Skills for Videogames

The manuscript for this new book (written by a dozen writers from the IGDA Game Writers' SIG) has to be submitted at the end of this month. Editing it has been much harder work than I expected, but I'm optimistic than the end result will be worthwhile. There really isn't anything out there on the subject of game writing that focuses on the actual skills used to get narrative into games. This should be a great reference work for anyone interested in the subject matter.

Metroid

So very nearly defeated the insidious Mother Brain on Wednesday; shot a dozen missiles into her fleshy cortex. The metroids in this game are truly scary - wonderfully concieved for such an old game.

Shadow of the Colossus

Now a quarter of the way through this game. The programmers and animators have excelled themselves with the colossus subsystem - they look and feel absolutely amazing, although the impact of the sense of scale was never more so than with the first. I'm guessing it will try and trump itself by getting truly vast before the end. However, the camera system is, well, not great (camera problems are endemic to the industry, of course). Speaking for myself, the environments, while pleasant, are not beautiful enough to compensate for the sense of boredom as one seeks out the colossi.  I imagine if you connected with it, it could become quite hypnotic and enchanting, though. This game evokes fear, wonder, excitement and fiero in a stunningly visceral manner that is worthy of praise. However, it is also designed for a notably narrow audience. As Sony's gift to the Hardcore, it is a very special game, but it also embodies the narrow focus of game design that holds back the industry from reaching a wider audience. Still, one cannot begrudge the existence of a masterpiece, even when flawed.

Fiero Kings

Shadow of the Colossus has one significant thing in common with God of War: they both seem designed primarily for fiero seekers. I'm willing to put up with the former game's frustrations in order to enjoy its uniqueness. But despite my love of Greek mythology, I can find nothing to motivate me to tackle the latter game at all, although it is certainly the most polished and expensive scrolling beat 'em up ever made, and doubtless suits many (Hardcore) players rather well. I am very interested in people's attitutes towards these two games - not individually, but collectively. Who likes both? Who dislikes both? Does anyone like one but not the other, and if so, why?

---

Anyway, I have much to do today in preparation for departure. I'll see some of you next week. Take care, and have fun!


Home

Home. You know where it is on your keyboard, but where is it in your games? This round table has elicited an impressive array of views on the topic of homes in games, and I have been consistently fascinated with the entries submitted.

Looking to myself, I’m surprised that none of my online gaming experiences (MUDs mostly) afford much of a memory of home. I do remember the Romulan temple I built on TrekMUSE at the firefalls of Gal’gathong (I built those too); I married some people there – as a priestess, you understand. It was my retirement after years of diplomatic service. Was it home? Only in the sense that it was highly personal to me. Maybe that’s enough.  

Wing Commander is mentioned in Jason’s post… I remember the Tiger’s Claw. Perhaps because I never owned a copy of the game, it doesn’t quite have the depth of resonance that it could have. But there’s something familiar there, a distant memory of something akin to home, and it’s not something that any other (single player) space game I’ve played has evoked.

The GTA games, and their derivatives, present playground worlds with places intended to be homes. You go there to save, and to get the law off your back by saving (in some versions). Do any feel like home? The abandoned airport in San Andreas, maybe. I go there often, and it feels familiar and welcoming when I arrive. It helps that it’s so far from each of my four girlfriends that they never call me when I’m there. But I can’t deny it’s the presence of a jetpack and an attack helicopter that are the real bribes for staying at the airfield. It is home only through familiarity, perhaps. But perhaps that is enough. 

What about the social sims? My wife and I really enjoyed building a house in The Sims. But it was never a home, because we never got to live there: the actual gameplay was so laborious, we never made enough cash to buy it. Housework to me is part of the cost of maintaining a home, not the essence of one.

Now Animal Crossing, that’s a different story! There, we definitely had a home – and we spent a tremendous amount of time arranging furniture there. The ability to personalise seems quite valuable in creating an impression of home. We even had neighbours. I had a bit of a crush on Mint, the green-furred squirrelgirl next door. The fact that we came back to our house every day to save enhanced the feeling that it was home. I didn’t feel the same way about my farmhouse in Harvest Moon so I guess that Animal Crossing got something fundamentally right with their houses.  

Looking at computer role-playing games, I have homes there too. For some reason, my pirate fortress in Skies of Arcadia still sticks in my head as home. I built it with my own two hands, and staffed it through my diplomacy. I got to choose which of my two female companions would have her face carved into the rock face. I slid down poles to board my ship. Come to think of it, my ship, the Delphinas, felt like home too. I think it was because I became so emotionally attached to it – familiarity again – although in this case, the attachment was as much to the people as to the place.

If games have not yet taken you to a place you can call home, perhaps it is because most games are more intent on making your blood race and your nerves fray than making you feel safe, secure, and surrounded by familiarity and friendship. Perhaps this disparity might serve to enhance your excitement by giving some contrast; it’s hard to know. Personally, I’d be more willing to consider a first person shooter that at least tried to give me a place I could call home, than one which puts me in a tunnel and asks me to kill everything in front of me. 

Home? Home is perhaps not a place, but a feeling. Home is out there… keep looking… you’ll find it.